Whining about Practitioners

Mark Dawson has touched on a common whine of “practitioners” about academics whose research is not “good” for anything, at least not good for anything they want. This is a common complaint in which so-called practitioners (as if academics don’t “practice” anything), who assert that if it ain’t good for achieving their policy goals they have already concluded are important anyway, it shouldn’t be done.

But, too often the demand for research in policy making circles is what Stephen Jay Gould once criticized as “advocacy masquerading as objectivity.” This is what the craniologists did when they spent their days comparing brain size to “prove” that whites were smarter than all other races. It is what the Bush administration demanded of the CIA in the lead-up to the Iraq War by selectively releasing data in pursuit of a pre-determined policy objective.

The appearance of scientific objectivity is persuasive for many of us. The problem is that real scientific objectivity can falsify conclusions, which is a big reason why public policy makers like keeping academic researchers at arms length. People commissioning reports also tend to insist on quantitative measures because it is more persuasive, even when professional judgment indicates that qualitative assessments are more appropriate.  Numbers are more persuasive in pursuit of the policy objective, so research methods be damned.  This is what happens when policy makers insist on running educational institutions on the basis of test scores.

And then in the end, they shoot the messenger.  This is what happens we hear policy makers whining about the political biases of anthropologists, the difficult of academic language, and the seeming inability of academics to do better than “on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand” recommendations.  Usually they throw in a complaint about Marxism, and Post-modernism without every having studied either.

Anyway, I think it is time that we academics let loose at practitioners, particularly those advising the government, about their techniques, prejudices, and approaches. (Meaning those of you in private sector anthropology are off the hook for now). A short blog like this cannot be comprehensive, but there are several general attitudes among practitioners which I would like to let loose on. These are:

1) Give me an executive summary, I don’t have time to read the whole report.

2) I don’t have time to read books, I get my ideas from op-ed.

3) I am in charge of running the world today, not tomorrow. Don’t fill me up with academic jargon and theories.

4) Career rewards are not for insight and intellectualizing, but for the compliant.

Ok, Poindexter, since you like your answers short and pithy, here is the quick one word answer to each. The first two are the response of the illiterate and lazy. Number three is the answer of the arrogant and clueless. And number four is the response of the cowardly. There’s your executive summary.  If you are tough enough to read further, here is the reasoning behind each.

Give me an executive summary, I don’t have time to read the whole report. You had time for a business lunch, didn’t you? What were you doing on the airplane besides watching a movie? It takes ten minutes to read the executive summary, and another half hour to flip through the rest of the report, and understand what went into the tables and charts. I ask my Chico State undergraduates to read far more than the executive summary because I want to be sure that they make informed independent judgments about the assumptions and methods used to design the study. They can do it, or they don’t pass my test.  why can’t you?

I don’t have time to read books, I get my ideas from op-ed. I like op-ed and blogs too. But you can only get one simple idea across in 750 words. The world is not a simple place, get used to it. I ask my undergraduates to read whole books, and the good students can effectively browse a standard 250 word book in 3-4 hours. (The not-so-literate students are even faster, but that’s another story). This is less time than it takes to fly across the country. In doing so, they must read a lot of stuff that will not be on the exam. But so what? Who knows which insight, fact, or impression will contribute to your thinking next year or the year after. This is one way the quality of wisdom is developed.

I am in charge of running the world today, not tomorrow. Don’t fill me up with academic jargon and theories. Everyone has a theory of how the world works, and you may be able to make your view be really important today. But guess what, it won’t work forever. Remember Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford? They were once running the world, too, and had theories of how that world worked. Everybody has a theory of the world, but I bet you don’t remember theirs. In the Bush administration, this was called neo-conservative dogma, and compassionate conservatism. In the Clinton and Tony Blair administrations it was called, called “The Middle Way,” whatever that means. Academic jargon and social theories are a way of recognizing cultural origins of such folk theories, and questioning their weaknesses. Some of them even have the name Marx attached to them–and he has been dead a lot longer than Gerald Ford. Remember, the reason the governing party was elected in the first place was that the last group ran their world view into the ground, and was thrown out of office. You will make the same mistake, and the arrogance of power being what it is, will inevitably do so. Knowing a little social theory with its jargon will help you predict more precisely when it will happen. Who knows, it may even give you a bit of wisdom that permits a dignified exit, and later role as a senior statesman! Bottom line, read Marx, Weber, Malinowski, and Durkheim.  (Bureaucrats should focus on Weber).

Career rewards are not for insight and intellectual, but for the compliant. This is true in all the big government bureaucracies, and the reason why you get so many jaded and cynical civil servants. They have traded security for intellectual compliance, and cowardice in the face of political pressure to produce particular results is one result. I mentioned the Bush administration’s misuse of data to invade Iraq above because it is in the news now–think of all the compliant bureaucrats who went along with this. But other fields also demand such intellectual compliance.

So for all you jaded practitioners out there. No more movies on cross-country flights, and cancel a few of those business lunches in order to read the whole report. Question that theory of the world you have, and use that civil service protection to deliver a little bad news to the boss of the day, even if he/she doesn’t want to hear it. And, remember, wisdom and good policy comes from critical thought, reading, and social theory!

Wake Up and Smell the (Fair-trade) Coffee

While I find your particular conflation of “liberal,” “Marxist,” and “academic anthropologist” delightfully mid-century, (although probably going to garner you a D on the final exam), Mark, I have let it slide long enough. I’ve got news for you, in the United States, you ARE a left-leaning anthropologist, and there’s little you can do about it. Why? Because the way that the political lines are drawn in this country and the terms “left” and “right” are defined, you fall squarely to the left and so does nearly every anthropologist in the country. (Oh, drat! Shouldn’t there be some discipline that studies the way that people get categorized into groups against their will? Someone should totally get on that! Any takers? Mark?)

In this country, if you accept the idea that traditionally described racial categories are a social construction and not a biological reality, you’re a liberal. If your eyes roll when you hear that medical insurance covers Viagra because it treats a medical condition, while birth control pills should be purchased with the patient’s own dime because they represent a life-style choice, you’re a lefty. And apparently, if you believe that there are historical structures related to the nature of our economic system that work not only to create socioeconomic classes but preserve them intact for generations, you’re a Marxist.

Are we the most left-leaning discipline in the academy? Does it matter?! We are one of the only (if not the only) disciplines that rests on assumptions about humankind that are classified as liberal in this country (you know, like evolution and human rights). If you accept the central tenet of American anthropology, cultural relativism, not only are you a liberal in this country, you are likely a bleeding heart liberal. The very nature of the enterprise of contemporary anthropology — to understand human diversity, to place value on difference, to eschew meta-narratives, to challenge the status quo and the naturalization of cultural traditions, etc. — are hallmarks of what people in this country call liberal.

I’ve been an anthropologist for a little over 20 years now, and learned my trade in your bastions of “liberalism,” and have never met anyone who fits your stereotype of the academic anthropologist — especially the part where you seem to keep confusing communism and Marxism. Don’t even get me started with the way you throw post-modernism around. (Maybe someone should have paid a little more attention in the classroom if he was planning on using these words later on.) And if we have reached the point where “caring about the oppressed” makes either a discipline or a person fundamentally flawed, well then, we liberals have alot more educating to do, don’t we?

So, Mark, I think it IS true that you, along with virtually all of your anthropological kin are left-leaning when you stand on the American political landscape. You are correct, however, about one major factor that makes it difficult to classify you as a liberal by American standards (and no, I am not talking about the Pentagon funding): you are incredibly comfortable with the inflammatory, over-generalizing, “truthiness” that characterizes the rhetoric of the most vocal members of the American right.

The devil is in the details, they say, and lord knows, neither one of you would be caught talking to that commie bastard. Accuracy – be damned.